China's ballooning market for bottled water has the country ready to tap into the snowpack high atop the Himalayas, adding a new stress on a resource dubbed "Asia's Water Tower."
Driven both by convenience and concerns about the country's widespread pollution, the Chinese drank nearly 10.6 billion gallons of bottled water in 2013, the Hong Kong-based nonprofit China Water Risk reported recently. They bought 15 percent of the bottled water sold worldwide that year and surpassed their US counterparts to become the globe's No. 1 consumers, the group wrote.
"The industry has big expansion plans, but key risks are not being addressed, raising concerns for China's already limited and polluted water resources," said China Water Risk's Dawn McGregor, who was responsible for producing the report.
That growth has led Chinese officials to look to the ice-capped peaks of Tibet, which Beijing has occupied since the 1950s, as the wellspring of a new industry. The government of that officially autonomous region has set out to build a 40 billion yuan ($6.3 billion) industry — a project it insists can be conducted with "harmony and stability, environmental protection, and safety in production,"Chinese officials announced over the summer.
The effort is drawing not only Tibetan operations, but state-owned companies from the rest of China and private ventures from China and beyond, China Water Risk researcher Hongqiao Liu said. But environmental pressures may drive Beijing to keep the lid on the boom.
The Himalayan icepack is under increasing stress from climate change, with the glaciers of the Qinhai-Tibetan Plateau receding 15 percent by the 1980s. And the Himalayan icepack is not only the source of much of China's water: High atop those peaks are the headwaters of some of Asia's major waterways, including the Indus and Mekong rivers.
"It is important to note that water quantity is only one aspect when considering the potential impact in region. Glaciers here play a significant role in the global climate. They are referred to as the 'Third Pole,' McGregor said. China's neighbors have yet to complain about the industry, and countries like India are developing their own bottled water industry from the Himalayan glaciers, she said.
Related: The World Is Running Out of Water
China's rapid industrialization and the newfound prosperity has put a huge strain on the natural resources of western China, said Jennifer Turner, director of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. But the epic pollution that has accompanied China's boom means most Chinese don't trust their water.
"Bottled water is expensive, but people pay money for things that are safe," Turner said. Even in the gleaming new cities of eastern China, everyone boils the tap water before using it. Meanwhile, the most popular brand of bottled water runs about 2.5 yuan (40 cents US), a bottle, while brands from the Himalayas sell for a premium in grocery stores, she said.
Even in Hong Kong, where tap water is cheaper and quality higher than the rest of China, more than half of residents drink bottled water at least some of the time, the think-tank Civic Exchange found in an April survey. About one in six said at least half of the water they drink comes from bottles, with convenience and cost driving the demand, said Yan-yan Yip, the group's executive director.
The recent discovery of high levels of lead from pipe welds in some of the city's public housing and other buildings has driven consumption higher as well, she said.
"If you ask people today, they may tell you safety is one of the top reasons for drinking bottled water," Yip said. But until recently, convenience and cost were the biggest drivers. And since plastic water bottles represent a small but growing share of Hong Kong's solid waste problem, her group is trying to encourage the construction of public dispensers to let people refill their own water bottles.
"If you do not produce that much plastic water bottle waste in the first place, you don't have that much to recycle," she said.
China is investing heavily in water treatment plants and has made improving drinking water a priority, which may cut into the future of the bottled-water market, Turner said. But selling Himalayan glacier water to Beijing's ballooning middle class isn't the only drag on the potential resource: The region has suffered from a string of droughts in the last few years, and China, India and other countries are building hydroelectric dams on their rivers at a rapid clip, Turner said.
"The Tibetan water tower cannot support all the damming and the extracting that is taking place right now," she said. Bottled water doesn't have nearly the impact that dams and water-intensive industries do, but it's "another big drop being taken out of the bucket."
"I don't know if it will necessary tip the entire balance, but it doesn't look to be sustainable in the long run," she said. Chinese leaders know they have to improve the efficiency of all their major systems for their new prosperity to be sustainable, and bottled water "is not a very efficient way to be using water."
That may lead Beijing to dial back the Tibetan spigot fairly soon, McGregor said. There's already a disconnect between the goals of the Tibetan authorities and officials in the central government, which appears ready to set reduced quotas.
"Mismatched central and provincial policies add to the industry's uncertain future," she said. "We expect the government to move to re-align such mismatched policies in the future, which will impact the industry."
Follow Matt Smith on Twitter: @mattsmithatl